This cold-hardy, graceful fern with bright green fronds and polished, black stems is a versatile addition to moist, shaded areas of the landscape. It softens the edges of borders and paths and is a delicately textured companion for wildflowers and large-leaved plants. The long stretch of the lower stems, known as stipes, are dark and slender, rendering them barely visible against the ground. When combined with northern maidenhair fern’s unique, circular growing pattern, the impression is that of a horizontal circle of delicate fronds floating in mid-air. The plant’s compact form is 1-3’ tall and wide, and it’s typically found in moist, rich soils and shady conditions, making it well-suited for the northern or shadier sides of homes. It will also grow in sandy, rocky, or clay soils that have been amended with organic matter. It thrives in part or full shade, but it doesn’t tolerate dry shade. It needs consistent water and well-draining soil to prevent dormancy or death.
Northern maidenhair fern may appear to be fragile with its wiry stems and tiny, rectangular- to fan-shaped leaflets, but it’s surprisingly hardy in the right conditions and virtually pest and disease free. The foliage tends to disappear in winter, but the smooth, black stems are a nice contrast to brightly colored spring flowers, as are the pinkish-red fiddleheads that emerge from shallow rhizomes in early spring. The wiry rhizomes will spread slowly to form a dense groundcover. From June through November, the fronds take on the appearance of the outstretched fingers of a hand, giving the plant the common name “five-fingered maidenhair fern.” Pedatum also refers to this outspread position, roughly translating to “cut like a bird’s foot.” The genus name Adiantum means “non-wetting,” referring to the leaves’ ability to shed rainwater without becoming wet. “Maidenhair” might refer to an oil that is extracted from the plant and used as a shampoo or to the comparison of the dark stems to a maiden’s hair.
Ferns don’t have flowers and seeds, but they can reproduce via spores that are housed in structures called sori. In late summer and fall, spores grow and mature within these sori on the undersides of the leaflets. On this particular species, the spores are hidden by the notched and curling edge of the leaflet.
Northern maidenhair fern should be easy to grow if it’s given the proper conditions. A moist and shady location is most important in preventing problems. Ferns tend to grow with their roots close to the surface, and rhizomes are easily damaged, so plant it away from foot or dog traffic. Leave soil around the base of the plant undisturbed so that the fern has an easier time establishing itself. Divisions and transplants can be done in early spring before the fiddleheads emerge. Space about 2 feet apart and provide mulch to help retain moisture. Brown spots on the leaves will let you know if it’s getting too much wind or sun.
Native habitats include rocky seeps and springs; wet cliffs; and moist, cool, rich woods and shaded slopes, especially with northern exposure. It’s sometimes found growing on rocks and boulders. Use in mass plantings or as an accent plant, in rock or rain gardens, as a groundcover, in beds and borders, as edgings, in woodlands and naturalized areas, and in containers.
Grows 1-3’ tall and 1-2’ wide.
Prefers part or full shade. Tolerates heavy shade and morning sun.
Prefers rich, acidic soils with consistent moisture. Adapts to amended clay and rocky soils and tolerates some lime.
Flat, curving fronds are 8-30” long and are divided into two blades each with 2-9 leaflets (pinnae) arranged in a semi-circle. In early spring, fiddleheads are burgundy to pink. The entire blade is fan shaped.
Black stems emerge from gray-brown rhizomes that are woody, stout, and covered in light brown scales.
Provides shelter for toads, lizards, and other ground animals. Songbirds use it for cover and nesting materials. Some aphids, mealy bugs, and other small insects suck the juices of maidenhair leaves. Florida fern caterpillar feeds on the leaves. Deer tend not to browse it.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Northern maidenhair fern has been used to treat rheumatism, fever, heart disease, and asthma. Native Americans used the leaflets to make a tea that treated respiratory conditions such as coughing and consumption (Tuberculosis).
The stems were used in multiple ways: to line and embellish baskets, decorate clothing, and to keep newly pierced earlobes from closing up.
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